Friday, December 07, 2007

North Stars gear up for Saturday showdown

Upon first glance, Saturday evening’s showdown at Centre ICE arena between the Traverse City North Stars and Alpena IceDiggers looks like any other intradivisional mid-season contest.

But according to Stars head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo, such games are what will separate the playoff wheat from the stay-home chaff when April rolls around.

“You look at the standings and you see us at the bottom, and yes we do have some games in hand,” Palumbo explained. “But that won’t matter at all if we don’t win the games against the three or four teams we’re in direct competition with for the few playoff spots. This is exactly the kind of game we’ve got to win if we want to play on after the regular season.”

Traverse City, at 9-9-4, has played three fewer games then Alpena, and is three points behind the fifth-place Diggers. The fourth-place U.S. National Team Development Program has played five more contests then the Stars, while third-place – and recently red-hot – Marquette (5-2 last seven) has two games on TC. In fact, only one North American Hockey League team – Alexandria – has played fewer games so far than the North Stars.

“That’s a scheduling quirk, and obviously we’ll all end up with the same number of games played,” Palumbo added. “And that’s why these games are so important if we want to move up.”

The IceDiggers dropped a 4-3 decision at home to the USA Under-17s on Thursday, but also downed mighty Mahoning Valley by a 2-1 count in Youngstown on Saturday. Alpena product Erik Peterson leads the Diggers with 32 points, including 24 assists. He leads the NAHL with 15 power play assists. Jon Puskar (11) and Cheboygan product Isaac Viau (10) are Alpena’s top goal scorers. Nate Pallegrino is 10-6-1 in net for the IceDiggers, but the club just completed a trade for ex-Southern Minnesota netkeep Nick Graves, who started nine games this year for the Express.

For Traverse City, the trigger-happy trio of Nate Urbaniak, Harrison Niemann and Kyle Bonis have been ablaze of late. Urbaniak and Niemann each have nine points over the past, with Urbaniak scoring in four straight contests. Bonis, who joined the team late last month, has made himself at home with a goal and two assists in his three games in a Stars sweater.

“They are working together right now,” Palumbo assessed. “They’re doing all the little things they have to do to score goals.”

Following Saturday’s contest, the North Stars welcome the U-17s to Centre ICE next weekend for a Friday-Saturday series.

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